The championship and last-place teams start the season with the same goal: winning. While they might share a plan, their differences define them more so. What makes a winning team more successful? Is it luck? Sure! (Maybe they happened to pick up a superstar first baseman late in the draft.) Is it hard work? Likely! But what makes a difference between the winners and the “other guys” isn’t the goals. It’s the strategy. Farmers aren’t that different: we all want a highly productive, cost-effective year, but how we get there defines us and our success.
Farm data captured by farm management software systems is like playing “Money Ball” with your operation. With it, you could have a 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team’s storybook season instead of the 2013 Houston Astros team’s season with the longest losing streak in the baseball team’s history. Let’s deconstruct some winning strategies for creating a playbook in the upcoming planting months.
Writing the Playbook: Pre-season Data Collection
Early in the season, deciding which information to collect may be difficult. While we may have a system to collect soil samples, we still are in farming’s early data age, so we are learning what information is valuable to support decision-making. When deciding what data to monitor, I advise farmers to focus on weaknesses. For example, in my experience, I’ve seen that many farmers do not collect information from their tillage operations. Documenting answers to the following questions can help farmers to decide what to track.
- How many times did that tilling implement cross the field?
- At which pass did the fuel consumption change?
- When you completed a tillage pass two weeks earlier, how did it affect the presence of disease?
Suppose tracking tillage is your data weakness, and you’ve committed to capturing some basic information. In that case, it’s time to move on to other vital data points that can provide insights to help make critical decisions. Tracking fertilizer rate applications can help determine when a field can afford to reduce the amount applied. With this information, you can manage price changes in fertilizer and decide if other areas need to rebuild soil nutrients.
Lastly, you will want to consider tracking even those factors out of your control. Capturing precipitation and temperature trends (for example: cold and wet vs. cold and dry years) can help you understand how different combinations affect a crop.
Farmers can create a strategy playbook to manage any season’s changing conditions with this information.
Watch the Catcher’s Signs: Adjust Based on Changing Conditions
When the planters come out, like baseball, anticipation builds in those first few weeks. The pace of a game or planting season is determined in the first few minutes of a game as you start to assess the strategy implemented by the other team. In the case of farming, we carefully consider the weather forecasts, as well as the availability of resources like parts and services and possible downtime.
By looking at your data in real-time, you can develop responsive plans to the current conditions. Don’t wait until the end of the season to start looking at your data. When everyone is on a hectic schedule during planting or harvesting, consider using Module Telematics Gateway (MTGs) to wirelessly monitor work quality and settings from across the field. With an MTG, you can check your mobile device daily and adjust as needed. For example, I visited a row crop grower who learned how to monitor equipment and use its data to forecast seed planting quality. When we used the remote display access function to check a planter tractor, she discovered the planter had the wrong crop set up. Analyzing data in real-time helps manage in-the-field moments, thus determining where time and resources can move to for more efficient management.
Post-game Analysis: Investigate Data from Previous Harvests
As my store's agronomist/data specialist, I’ve learned the simple practices of re-formatting and post-calibrating data to reveal insights farmers can jot down for next season’s playbook, including a higher understanding about if a crop or piece of equipment underperformed.
During my master’s degree practicum in field management of a high-value perennial crop in 2013, a grower and I looked at yields in 2011 attributed to cold spring and late summer. The following planting season, a record-breaking heat wave skewed the two-year project due to each season's opposite conditions. Disheartened, the grower and I reviewed both years’ data sets including yields and field management practices. We didn’t expect to discover any usable insights. Then, we noticed an interesting spike in data: two varieties of the 12 evaluated outperformed the others within the two swing years showing that those varieties (in a perennial crop) could withstand variable growing climates.
Data collection during the previous harvest season led to success in the fall because the grower and I had information to consider, along with the willingness to spend time and energy on reviewing each year’s information, including weather conditions.
A winning team needs to have a great strategy that involves having information available both in the moment and in the film room to develop an initial plan and respond to emerging conditions. Doing so will help achieve big wins on the baseball and farming field.
About the Author: Erin Hightower is an agronomist for RDO Equipment Co. based in Pasco, Wash., where she consults with growers on precision agriculture adoption. She has a Master of Sciences in Agriculture, and Bachelor of Sciences in Agriculture Economics and Management from Washington State University. Email Erin at @email@example.com or connect with her on Twitter @RDOErinH.
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